Someone commented the other day, I forget where otherwise I’d link to it, that they ‘didn’t have a natural ability to learn foreign languages’.
To which I gave my standard reply (people say this all the time) that, in my experience, few people do, so not to worry.
Usually, say in a class discussion, I’d go on to explain that, in over twenty-five years of classroom teaching (mostly but not exclusively with adults) I’ve met only two people who seemed really exceptionally-able compared to the norm.
I’m talking about the real outliers here, not what we would all understand to be a ‘normal’ distribution of performance.
In your language class at high school, for example, was there one person who literally never learned anything, not even a single word? Who got zero on all the tests?
Probably not, right?
And in the same extreme scenario, was there anyone who was just so able that they outshone not only the other kids but also the teacher? Excluding bilingual kids, if there were any, who don’t count in this regard.
Also probably not.
So over those last twenty-five years of teaching, I’ve met two students who seemed ‘super-able’, both teenage girls.
We’re talking kids, say fourteen years old, who far outshone anyone else in their context, but also most other people in general.
The mother of the first one came to tell me that her daughter wasn’t happy in the class she’d been assigned to (an evening course in Poland, with adults). I met the girl for a chat and immediately put her into the hardest class we had in the school. There were nine hundred students that year, but perhaps only twenty or thirty at the top level.
Coincidentally, I was also the teacher. The few other students in the class were mostly Polish English-teachers studying for an international C2 (the top level) exam to burnish their resume with.
The exceptional girl not only held her own in the class, but also passed the exam at the end of the year. She got a B, I think, and that was it – end of studying English for her, there was nowhere else to go.
Years later I got a letter saying that she was now in medical school and just wanted to say ‘Hello’.
What was at the root of such exceptional performance?
Personally I think she’d been carefully hot-housed by her mother, though the woman, for reasons of her own, had denied that her daughter had had any particular advantages, such as years of private lessons or perhaps a native-speaking but now invisible father. Either of which could have wholly or partially explained the child’s performance.
Which certainly WAS the case with the other girl, who lived in Italy but was of Chinese extraction (as they say – sounds a bit like juicing an orange…)
I’d previously taught her adult elder brother (C2 again, he was very bright) and when we opened our own school he brought his little sister in and paid cash in advance for the whole year’s course, both for her and her cousin.
That was about the only money we took that year, and it didn’t even start to cover our costs, but it was a vote of confidence and made us feel better.
And at least there were students to teach!
The cousin was a clever child, like the elder brother, but it was the sister that stood out. Despite being a sulky little brat, she was clearly exceptionally able. Over the four or five years they remained with us doing part-time courses in the afternoons she went from B1 to C2, seemingly effortlessly.
My assumption was that the family, being Chinese, had prioritised the kids’ education from an early age. When we met the girl and her cousin, at middle school age, their unusual/exceptional performance must have been the outcome of years of previous courses or tutoring, plus a very un-Italian willingness to not take ‘No’ for an answer when it comes to academic achievement.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I currently teach a class of seven pre-schoolers.
Occasionally that’s eight pre-schoolers, as some ambitious or tired-out mother (sorry, but it usually IS the mother) will bring her toddler for a ‘trial lesson’.
After which, the mother will thank me and explain that she’ll need to consult her son before deciding whether or not to enrol him (it’s usually a boy as they’re harder for the mothers or babysitters to keep occupied during the winter months…).
Sometimes they’ll even do this in front of me: did you have a nice time, darling? Did you learn anything? Do you want to come back again next week? No? Oh well, then…
NOT the Chinese families, fortunately. You are here to learn English from this rather scary looking foreigner. Do what he says or there’ll be trouble!
But OK, to get back to the point – natural ability to learn a foreign language?
If you ask me, it doesn’t exist.
Not only are there few naturally-talented geniuses around, but there also seem to be few people who just cannot learn.
What ability that human brains have is, in my humble opinion, fairly distributed!
OK, I can think of thousands of examples of students who didn’t make progress, who wasted their time and their money.
But I genuinely have no recollection, not a single one, of any person, adult or child, who was UNABLE to learn had they made it a priority to do so.
What explains who learns and who fails to?
Having prior experience of successfully learning a language helps a lot. Students who were successful learning a foreign language at school have more confidence and a better understanding of what’s required.
Being motivated, or having parents who insist, helps a lot, too. Witness many native English-speakers (present company excepted), who don’t give a damn.
Having the opportunity (classes, materials, etc.) is essential. Your dad rents out camels to tourists at the Pyramids? By adulthood your linguistic skills will doubtless be world-class.
And of course it really, really helps if the teacher doesn’t mess it up.
For example, by telling a kid that, unfortunately, it seems they have no natural ability.
Or by favouring the one bilingual child in the class and holding him up as an example of what other, lesser individuals should aspire to.
Arguably, motivation, opportunity and a POSITIVE experience of learning explain 100% of the variation in language-learning performance.
Why need ‘natural ability’ come into it?
Unless, of course, that’s shorthand for ‘Never had the chance to succeed’.
Take a bunch of random adults from anywhere in the world – the rich, the poor, the educated, the less-educated, the motivated and the bored – and try to teach them Italian.
The Spanish-speaker will whizz ahead compared to the anglo. The college graduate will ask the right questions and organise her notes effectively.
I bet you could explain away the inevitable performance differences WITHOUT needing to rely on the concept of natural ability.
Anyway, I’ve done a little Googling on your behalf, to see if the world agrees with me on this.
The one notable thing I learnt was just how stupid people can be, especially language teachers but also people wasting cash on so-called ‘scientific’ learning systems.
I admit, that does rather contradict my theory that natural ability doesn’t count (anyone could be a language teacher, really!)
But if you read the comments on some of the resources I link to below, you’ll see what I mean.
There’s one article written by a teacher who DOES believe in natural ability, and he surely knows better than I do as he’s THE TEACHER.
Other commenters agree, until someone points out that the article-writer, being a language-teacher himself, would presumably consider himself to have the magical ‘natural ability’ and so be inclined to recognise it in others rather than considering other factors, such as poor-teaching, which might explain under-performance.
These nice clean well-dressed cooperative children who behave in the way I expect them to, and approve of, are naturally-able at languages (as well as having supportive college-graduate parents).
Whereas these ‘other’ children, sadly, have no such ability, which conveniently excuses my failure to teach them anything this year.
Honestly, no one in the private sector could get away with such pathetic reasoning.
We SELL language training.
We wouldn’t get very far at all if we were telling our CUSTOMERS that, unfortunately, they lacked the cognitive tools to really benefit from what they had purchased.
Whatever. Here are the links I mentioned:
Why do some people learn new languages easily and some don’t? (superficial, but a good starting point)
What about natural aptitude for second language learning? (the comments are worth reading…)
Language-learning aptitude (Wikipedia: dry nonsense)
Is language learning aptitude language specific or language general? (technical but thought-provoking)
Comments are welcome of course. To say your piece, click here and scroll down. Comments will be moderated, so be patient.
Fantozzi’s second adventures – last orders please!
Here’s a final reminder about this week’s new Italian easy reader ebook Il secondo tragico Fantozzi.
This week ONLY it’s 25% off, so just £5.99 rather than the usual easy reader price of £7.99.